Monday, December 20, 2010

Best books of 2010

In chronological order, here are the books I loved most in 2010:
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson
  • Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
  • The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin
  • The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

This list does not seem very long, for an entire year's worth of reading.  I read a lot of books that weren't that great this year (here's looking at you, Wolf Hall and Freedom (see more thoughts on the latter book here)).  I switched from buying books to going to the library.  I read some more short stories (including Mavis Gallant, Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore and others) but Wells Tower was the only one I loved.  Game Change was practically perfect, in its gossipy political way, but I didn't read as much history as usual.

Fiction-wise, Moby-Dick frustrated me as I read it but left me reeling (more thoughts here).  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a book that captivated me since I was a little kid, turned out to be almost prophetic (more thoughts here), and bookended nicely by The Privileges.  But my favorite novel of the year would have to be Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs.  Although the plot of this slender book is modest and direct, I thought she wrote very ambitiously about the post-9/11 era through the lens of a small cast of characters.  I actually think she accomplished what Jonathan Franzen tried to do in a much more bloated way.  Moore's writing was impeccable, and besides from one far-fetched episode with the protagonist's mysterious boyfriend, I thought this book was flawless.

(While on the subject of Lorrie Moore, let me note that she wrote the most fantastic simile I've read in a long time, from her story "Charades" in Birds of America: "She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor's office, but it is a limited thing--like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands, and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable.")

The best non-fiction I read -- just beating out the salacious popcorn of Game Change and the ongoing train of biographical perfection that is The Years of Lyndon Johnson -- was Cheever: A Life.  After discovering Cheever's fiction a couple years back, I was very interested to read about his sad and troubled life.  I had a lot of sympathy for him, for his demons, for the suffering he inflicted on himself and on others. His was a fascinating life, and Blake Bailey created an exemplary biography, as well as a great literary study of Cheever's works.

Right now I'm read Norman Mailer's The Naked and The Dead, a great book for these dark winter days.  Coming up in the queue: a new biography of Raymond Carver and -- finally -- with baited breath -- Master of the Senate.  I'm hoping those will get me through the winter, and then who knows what's next.  I'd like to read some older, more classic short stories (maybe Chekhov or something) and am thinking possibly about Anthony Trollope.  And hey, there's always Decision Points.

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